Believe it or not, Will Ferrell and Robert Eggers have a lot in common when it comes to their cinematic output. The comic actor has made a career on the big screen satirizing macho doofuses in films like ANCHORMAN, BLADES OF GLORY, and TALLADEGA NIGHTS. Eggers likes to rip machismo too, albeit more seriously. In THE WITCH, the writer/director showcased a pigheaded patriarch whose arrogance gets almost everyone in his family killed. In THE LIGHTHOUSE, Eggers presented a story of two men whose stoicism drives them to madness. And in THE NORTHMAN which opens Friday, Eggers tells a tale of a violent Norse Viking whose quest for vengeance destroys his world. It’s a brutal takedown of male testosterone, one that sometimes comes off as over-the-top silly as Ferrell’s films.
One expects a period piece about early Norsemen to be packed with bloodletting, but Eggers seems hellbent on outdoing the maiming and mayhem exhibited in similarly over-the-top violent films like CONAN THE BARBARIAN or BRAVEHEART. The world he creates here is filled with men so feral they bark at each other like dogs, rape and plunder with utter abandon, and even turn an afternoon game of sport into an opportunity to kill each other. The hellzapoppin’ machismo reaches a saturation point and then starts to edge towards the ridiculous.
Ethan Hawke plays King Aurvandil, returning to his village after a year-long excursion, where he soon lords over his people the beauty of his wife Gudrun (Nicole Kidman), and the maturation of his son Amleth (Oscar Novak). Such boasting doesn’t sit well with his jealous brother Fjolnir (Claes Bang) and it isn’t long before he slays the monarch. Amleth witnesses the horrific murder by beheading but manages to escape by doing some slicing and dicing himself. He manages to cut off the nose of one of Fjolnir’s henchmen, proving his father right. The boy has matured, indeed, into one handy swordsman.
Years go by and Amleth becomes a man. A beefy and buff Alexander Skarsgard plays the returning son, hellbent on revenge and a stranger to those he left behind in the kingdom. Here Eggers makes matters much more interesting by throwing some choice obstacles in the way of Amleth’s revenge plotting. For starters, he’s captured by his uncle’s minions and forced into slavery. And secondly, Fjolnir is far from the mighty king he once was. The incompetent fool has lost his castle and kingdom and is now stuck heading up merely a small village of devout followers.
Had Eggers stayed wholly on this path, playing up the emptiness of Amleth’s mission and the foolhardiness of violent men, the film might have been a searing indictment of the patriarchy. But alas, Eggers wants to eat his cake and have it too. He spends as much time reveling in the violence as he does in condemning it. Eggers devotes oodles of screen time showing men pummeling other men, butchering animals, and abusing women. After 90 minutes, the story becomes too unseemly.
Other issues hurt the film too. The actors’ attempts at authentic accents tend to veer all over the map and some of the action scenes feel amateurishly choreographed. You can see numerous punches being pulled here and there. Additionally, many lines of dialogue are as over-the-top corny as anything uttered by Kirk Douglas in THE VIKINGS in 1958. Skarsgard makes a more believable brute than Douglas did back then, but the Swedish-born actor struggles to give his lead dimension. That’s surprising, considering how memorable he essayed the baddies he played on HBO’s TRUE BLOOD and BIG LITTLE LIES this past decade.
On the plus side, Nicole Kidman gives a surprisingly menacing performance as a queen who’s not quite the victim she pretends to be, and Eggers certainly knows how to world-build. The production design, costuming, makeup, and cinematography are all first-rate, and the locations are damp with fog and danger. Eggers’ superb use of landscapes covers the gamut too, from rugged cliffs to treacherous waters to fiery volcanos.
The film wants to be a bare-chested HAMLET, a searing tale of a monarch’s son vengefully littering the kingdom with bodies throughout his quest. It achieves that in some respects, even presenting its own version of Ophelia in Anya Taylor-Joy’s Olga. She plays a savvy slave here, exploited by the men around her but holding onto her bearings through it all, unlike Shakespeare’s tragic ingenué. Taylor-Joy doesn’t have many lines or storytime, but she holds the screen like a true movie star.
More of Olga’s strong character and less of the bellicose brutality of the male ones would’ve helped Eggers in his well-meaning critique of toxic masculinity. Instead, his savaging of machismo is dampened by all the savagery he insists on splattering across the screen. The violence is so overdone that it’s almost laughable. But not in a good Will Ferrell comedy kind of way.